The Bright Stars of a Future Japan

One of the pleasures of working with International students in California was becoming friends with “special” students. Yes, all students are special, but we would sometimes meet extraordinary students who had a passion for life and learning. Some International students study in America because it’s easier or less stressful than staying in their home country and treat their stay as a long vacation. But others come to fully embrace learning about a new culture and language in the short time they have. They take every opportunity to explore, to make friends outside of their own culture and immerse themselves in the English language.

While we lived in California, I only saw half of the picture: how these students behaved while living overseas. But moving to Japan and reconnecting with some of our exceptional student friends, I have had the chance to see the other half of the picture: how these students use what they learned studying abroad in their lives in Japan. And I am so impressed with what I have seen.

Here are a few examples from some of our students we had English conversation groups with or spent time with in other ways.

Jun is working for the Japan League Soccer Association and regularly using his English skills to help communicate with foreign professional soccer clubs and translate contracts for players wishing to play overseas.

Saya and Nana are working at a growing company developing tools to teach people English. Saya even got me some contract work doing voice-over for one of the tests they are developing.

Another Jun worked hard on improving his English and got a job last summer translating for the visiting Brunei national soccer team while they visited and played in Japan.

Mitsu is finishing his degree at Waseda University and working part time for a start-up company.

Now that we live in Japan, it’s more difficult for us to find┬áthese exceptional young Japanese people who want to have a positive impact on the future of Japan, though we know they are around us. Fortunately, my friend Steve Sakanashi has brought a company to Japan to attract exactly that kind of person.

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Sekai Creator started in Seattle as a course teaching leadership and entrepreneurial skills to Japanese international students studying at local universities, but Steve’s vision was to reach more potential leaders of the new Japanese economy by bringing the program to Japan. In mid-May, he finally realized his dream by launching his course in Tokyo.

Steve asked me to photograph the launch event which was attended by over 35 bright young stars of the future. They came from various universities across Tokyo to hear about the six-week program which will give them hands-on training in being an entrepreneur and experiencing every role necessary to bring a new product to market. Steve brings in experts in various areas of business to share their knowledge with the students, but the students are required to develop a product, market it and make a 50,000 yen (about $500) profit in the six-week period. It is a difficult task, but the challenge pushes the limits of the students’s abilities and helps them to learn through experience, success and failure.

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The kick-off party was appropriately held at Ryozan Park, a beautiful community workplace where people can rent shared office space to collaborate and network with others. Though not inspired by Sekai Creator, the concept of Ryozan Park definitely fits the mold of what Steve would like his students to create in Japan.

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At the party, I had the privilege of meeting and talking to many extraordinary students, learning their stories and seeing a glimpse into the future of Japan. And I like what I see in them.

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Congratulations to Steve and his team on realizing their dream of launching Sekai Creator in Tokyo. I look forward to seeing how Sekai Creator inspires the young people in Japan to break out of the traditional thinking patterns of Japanese business that are hindering the economy and innovation of this otherwise amazing country.

We Love Japanese Students!

(For the sake of accuracy, we should say we love ALL our International students, like Pui, who is from Thailand but was visiting Tokyo this month!)

Over the past few couple of weeks, I have had many opportunities to meet with many of the former university students whom we spent time with doing international student ministry in California, as well as meeting some current students who attend English and Bible classes taught by our pastor’s wife at a local university. I always find that Japanese university students are warm-hearted, friendly and eager to become friends with people from other countries.

This past week, our good friends Jeff and Wendy visited us from California. Though it was their vacation, their priority (other than eating as many different kinds of delicious Japanese food as possible) was meeting up with former international students to see how they are doing and encourage them. As a result, our family was also able to reconnect with many student friends that we had made in California. It was a real blessing to spend time with the students and see how they looked back on the time we all shared together in California with fond memories.

Some of the students made tremendous sacrifices to spend time with us. One student came from over 2 hours away just to spend 90 minutes attending church service with us. Another student met Jeff and Wendy on their arrival in Tokyo after 11pm and walked them to their hotel from their arrival point. Still another student worked until 1:30am one day so he could make sure he could get off work early the next day to meet them for dinner. These are some examples of how much the students value the relationships built with us while they were living overseas.

Another theme I found from talking to the students is that they relish the opportunity to speak English with native speakers, especially those who spent time overseas. One of the things that was important to us in student ministry was that it should always be a safe place for students to practice their English conversation. We were always encouraging and gentle in correcting any of their mistakes. Most students learned to enjoy English conversation with members of our ministry because they didn’t have to be embarrassed about making mistakes.

Spending time with Jeff and Wendy and our former students has rekindled a desire to reach out to university students again. There are 3 universities within a 5-10 minute walk from our church. Our church is large with plenty of room to organize a gathering of students. We have several native English speakers at church and many others who speak English very well as a result of spending time living overseas. And we have a pastor whom I believe can speak to the hearts of students in practical ways, giving them advice from the Bible that can be applied to many of the things they are going through: relationships, job hunting, emotional healing.

We have already started some high level brainstorming with those who might be interested from church on what this kind of ministry might look like. God willing, we’ll launch a monthly gathering early in 2015. Please be in prayer with us as we allow God to guide us in how this ministry should be structured and ask Him to bring many people with a passion for building friendships with university students to serve them.

The Homestay Experience: Blessing or Being Blessed?

On Wednesday morning we stood in the church parking lot as the van of students pulled away, waving our final farewell as they headed off to the airport and eventually back to Japan. Several families from our church and our sister church hosted 8 students and their 2 leaders for a little over a week.

This would be our third and final year hosting a Japanese student here in the Bay Area; we’re leaving for Japan in just a few months. Each year has been an experience I can only describe as reciprocal, teaching and learning, giving and receiving, blessing and being blessed. Having a Japanese student in your home enables you to appreciate the culture of Japan intertwined with the uniqueness of a person whom God created.

We knew hosting a student would be a little more difficult this year than most. Our house was in a bit of chaos from our weekly purging to rid ourselves of 10 years of material accumulation. Some members of our family would be missing at times due to commitments to other activities we had made months earlier. Yet we felt it was important to host a student, to build a relationship with one more person whom we could reconnect with when we reach Japan this summer.

And God did not disappoint us by providing us with a wonderful student whom we will call J. J is a PK, the son of a Tokyo area pastor. PKs generally have a certain reputation for being a bit on the wild or rebellious side, but J was nothing like that. He was a disciplined young man who started each day before sunrise with a five mile run around the neighborhood. Back home, he was a committed soccer coach (apart from being a full time student at a prestigious university) for a middle school soccer team. He told me that he did not expect his players to do anything he would not do himself, hence his discipline in running every day.

J was also extremely independent. I could tell from his story about growing up as a pastor’s son that expectations were high for him and his siblings and he was expected to contribute in positive ways to being successful and hard working. I felt bad because I never woke early enough to make him breakfast; I only had to show him where everything was and he was content to make his own meal long before I was out of bed.

But for all his independence, one thing J had not had to experience was being humbled, at least, until he came to America for the first time. On one of his morning runs at his homestay before he came to our house, he got lost in the neighborhood. Since it was early in the morning, he couldn’t get in contact with any of his team members. When he encountered people in the neighborhood, he was unable to convey enough information to help them help him. Eventually, the police were called out to help him. By the time the police arrived, he was finally able to get the address of his homestay family’s house, and they drove him back. J admitted it was humbling for him to be in America. To be lost and unable to find a way home. To need help identifying items at the store. To need to rely on other people for transportation. But it was through that humbling that he experienced the love of Christ through other Christians, perhaps for the first time.

From what I gathered, J’s father was a pastor whose style of preaching is more intellectual than emotional. Though his father is an outstanding pastor in his own style, J had never seen a church service different from his father’s church. When he experienced church in an American style, a Japanese-American style, and a Japanese church in America style, he realized the rich diversity in the worship of God. None was more right or wrong than another, only different and beautiful in their own ways. In the same way, J experienced the love of Christ through others in different ways than he had experienced before, and that love fed a need that he had not known he even had.

For me, it was a blessing to be able to see how even among our Christian brothers and sisters in Japan, there is a diversity in the worship of God that needs to be experienced to be appreciated. J’s church is a healthy church where people are being fed from the Word of the Lord, but now he has experienced a different style of worship that will no doubt influence him spiritually in the future. For me, I’m excited to walk with J on this journey and continue to meet with him in Japan to answer his questions about living out his faith in new ways and serving God with the many gifts he has been blessed with.

Please pray for J as he processes all he experienced and learned from his time in America and decides how he can love others with the love of Christ as he was able to receive it from others.